Memories of Lincoln Center, Fifty Years On

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To me, the sixteen acres of Lincoln Center is sacred ground. Once pilloried as a supermarket of culture or a sure-to-fail urban development scheme, it has defied the negativity and pessimism to become a vibrant if at times unwieldy destination that people argue about because they passionately want it to be the best of its kind. I was born the same year (1956) the concept of the center came about and grew up two blocks away as the complex was being born.

Central to the challenge of making viable this place, whose groundbreaking in May 1959 included President Eisenhower and Leontyne Price, was to house iconic New York arts companies in new theaters that would be elegant but accessible, august yet inclusive. All told, I think it has done a great job in achieving its aims in the half-century since its first building opened. 

As you stand on the central plaza (now called the Josie Robertson Plaza) of the complex and look in all directions, you see imposing buildings but might not know some of their unusual stories, what they were intended for and what they have become. The more you look, the more you see. This article is the first in an occasional series about Lincoln Center then and now. I look forward to reader memories and comments about the past and present of this landmark institution whose first theater, then called Philharmonic Hall, opened in 1962.

Many people objected to the creation of Lincoln Center because it seemed to be pushing out working-class people to build a fancy arts venue for the rich. If you have seen the film version of West Side Story, with its chain fences and tenements, that is the land where Lincoln Center now stands. The surrounding area was rough and tumble, and quite diverse. I was neither a Jet nor a Shark, just a neighborhood kid with limited means but with the big dreams typical of many New Yorkers. 

On the west side of Amsterdam Avenue, just opposite the blocks zoned for Lincoln Center, stood small reddish brown buildings—still there today—that were public housing projects built for low-income people. They are familiar in design to all New Yorkers as they exist in all five boroughs. My grandmother lived in identical buildings in Queens. Those near Lincoln Center were inhabited mostly by—as they were known then—"Negroes" and "Latins." I had many elementary school friends there and all of them referred, with no irony, to the rising marble temples of Lincoln Center as "the white projects" as if the places you resided in reflected the color of your skin.

Cultural Acropolis

Aware that there was strong, though sometimes misguided, opposition to this new complex, its planners had to make practical and visual gestures to indicate that Lincoln Center was meant for everyone. The three main buildings on the central plaza have glass fronts that were intended to suggest the transparency and accessibility of the buildings and the companies that inhabit them. A brilliant stroke was to create terraces on the three buildings (originally called Philharmonic Hall, the New York State Theater and the Metropolitan Opera House) facing the Plaza so that audience members could step out at intermissions to take in the view of the other halls, illuminated and animated, the playful cascades of the central fountain and the moon rising over Central Park. Now these terraces are the refuge of smokers, so that other audience members seldom venture out of doors.

The Plaza is really an Italian piazza where people gather to talk, eat ice cream and stroll. You don’t have to attend a performance to go there. While some people say it shows the inspiration of Venice’s Piazza San Marco, I see it as akin to Rome’s Campidoglio (the Capitoline Hill) for the way the buildings are positioned and the intricate design of the pavement around a central point—a statue of of Marcus Aurelius in Rome and the fountain in New York. The fact that the buildings are made of the same travertine marble used in the Eternal City lends further commonality between the two great urban spaces. Indeed, Lincoln Center became a cultural Acropolis, raised above Columbus Avenue and Broadway, inviting and ennobling but also much quieter acoustically and visually making it a desirable place for reflection.

My mother worked for Lincoln Center Incorporated in the 1960s at a time when there were no offices on the campus but simply a small space above the long-gone Cinema Studio on Broadway and 66th Street. The office canteen was John’s Coffee Shop just downstairs. Later, they moved to larger digs in the American Bible Society building a few blocks south. They would not occupy Lincoln Center until construction of the major theaters was completed.

The first building opened in 1962 and was called Philharmonic Hall (known, since 1976, as Avery Fisher Hall in honor of the man who gave money to do a significant acoustical overhaul of the theater). It became the home of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the venue for the Mostly Mozart Festival which served, early on, as an air-conditioned refuge from beastly summer heat at a time when many people did not have AC at home. For $8 you could cool off and also hear beautiful music. In recent years, programming of the festival has become much more adventurous. Fisher Hall also hosts many guest orchestras and soloists, as well as performances by Opera Orchestra of New York and the annual Richard Tucker Foundation gala.

Philharmonic Hall provided me with a 1960's version of child care and was where I got some of my earliest music education. After school I went there and stayed under the watchful eyes of security guards and box office staff. Leonard Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic and a Pied Piper of music for kids. A few of us were often allowed to sit in on rehearsals and hear Lenny guide the orchestra deeper into the music. He would swivel in his chair and lecture us about modes, chords, key signatures and what Beethoven or Brahms was thinking about when they wrote their symphonies and concertos. He often complained about the acoustics, as I will discuss in my next article.

The next building to open was the New York State Theater, which was paid for by New York state and given to the city on the occasion of the 1964 World’s Fair. It would house the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera, both arriving from the City Center on 55th Street. These distinguished companies were, in different ways, “of the people.” On the first tier was the lofty and spacious Grand Promenade, which was intended as the official receiving room for city events. With its oversized statues by Elie Nadelman, it was classically proportioned and invitingly modern. 

In 1965 came the Vivian Beaumont Theater on the North Plaza and, beneath it, the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, both intended for plays. Structurally and creatively they had a rough start but went on to present marvelous productions of classic and new plays and musicals, abetted by superbly iconic posters that are works of art. Seeing the African-American actress Diana Sands as Shaw’s Saint Joan very early on remains a touchstone of why I adore live theater. At the same time, the peerless New York Public Library for the Performing Arts opened next door and Lincoln Center became a destination not only to watch performances of the great art forms but also to study them.

The Metropolitan Opera House opened with Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra on September 16, 1966, having left the wonderful Old Met on 39th Street because, gorgeous though the auditorium was, the stage was woefully inadequate for presenting the kind of productions the Met aspired to. The fact that the Old Met was torn down, though, was a tragedy of epic proportions, especially when you see the drab office building of light green bricks that sits in its place. It would have been an excellent venue for many companies including the New York City Opera.

At the end of the 1960s the Juilliard School opened on the north side of 65th Street, moving downtown from near Columbia University. It fulfilled one of Lincoln Center’s foremost goals, to have an active exchange between talented students and the performing arts professionals across the way. I have seen many students in the theaters and library attending performances, doing research, and receiving instruction from master artists. In this way too, Lincoln Center is less of a supermarket and more of a piazza.

On the corner of Broadway and 65th Street, in one corner of the Juilliard building, is Alice Tully Hall, named for the wonderful old-school arts patron who took a great interest in the design of a space with comfortable seats and generous legroom that was intended for chamber music (and gave birth to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center). The unforgettable gold and black wallpaper in the restrooms that depicted all manner of African wildlife was pure Alice Tully. She told me with a wry smile that she had given up on correcting people who came up to her and said, “Thank you for all you have done for music, Miss Hall.”  

One of the least-appreciated and most compelling aspects of Lincoln Center is its abundant collection of modern paintings and sculptures. The Met has its famous Chagalls but, throughout the complex, are works by Alexander Calder, Jim Dine, Frank Stella and many other contemporary artists. The List Art program at the center has commissioned more than a hundred important works. We will visit some of these in future articles.

The most imposing work of public art is Henry Moore’s reclining figure in the reflecting pool of the North Plaza. When the complex was opened the pool was much bigger and this sculpture fit the space well. Recent renovations have changed the proportion of open space to objects at Lincoln Center and serves as a metaphor for what the complex is now.

This is the first in an occasional series about Lincoln Center in the 50 years since its first performance. The next article will assess some of the recent changes on the campus and focus on the future of Avery Fisher Hall. Please share your Lincoln Center memories -- or concerns -- in the comment section below.

Photos: 1) Proposed site for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 1957 (Bob Serating) 2) David H. Koch Theater 3) Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall, November 26, 1985 (Steve J. Sherman) 4)
Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill autograph the highest steel beam of the new Metropolitan Opera House, January 20, 1964 (Bob Serating) 5) Alice Tully Hall today